Ever since the men in blue crashed out of cricket’s biggest tournament, there has been a stream of newspaper stories on how the team’s loss has also been a commercial loss for everyone from soft drink advertisers to tour operators. I suspect the release of Men In White, a collection of essays on cricket by Mukul Kesavan, was originally timed to coincide with a crescendo of public interest in the game, as Rahul Dravid’s boys marched towards the World Cup finals. That was not to be— cricket, as the awful cliché in the commentary box goes, is a game of glorious uncertainties.
It would be unfortunate if this wonderful collection were to suffer the fate of soft drink advertisements. It deserves to be widely read, for the insights it offers into the game and the sharpness of its writing.
Kesavan is one of the great contemporary writers on cricket—and one who is deeply literate. These essays are peppered with social, cultural and scientific allusions. In one essay, he explains why true-blue cricket enthusiasts celebrate great innings made on the losing side: “It’s like watching Karna fight in vain: Tragedy heightens the heroism of the performance.” Elsewhere, he describes Mohammad Azharuddin as cricket’s Talat Mahmood—and it is then that you realize that there is really an underlying commonality in the silken strokes of one and the dulcet vocals of the other.
But what makes Kesavan’s writing especially attractive is the fine balance he maintains between tradition and modernity. He started watching Test cricket in 1964, when a second-rate MCC team led by M.J.K. Smith played in India. So, Kesavan is clearly a pre-television, pre-Packer type of cricket fan.
Every cricket lover who fell for the game’s charms before the early 1980s will readily identify with the situations he describes—spending evenings with your ears glued to a battered radio, trying to pick up the words of John Arlott and the rest of the BBC Test Match Special Team, despite the mad hiss and crackle of the short-wave broadcast. Or getting up bleary-eyed in the mornings to catch Alan McGilvray describe how Lillee and Thompson were battering yet another line-up of batsmen.
It is very easy to look back through the mists of boyhood memories and imagine a non-existent cricketing utopia. And, equally, to condemn all that is modern as a sign of terminal decline. Kesavan does not fall into that trap. Some of his most perceptive—and most controversial—comments are on the revolutionary nature of the modern game.
His critical appreciation of Sanath Jayasuriya borders on the brilliant. It is well-known that the Sri Lankans made a strategic breakthrough in the way the one-day game is played. Till Jayasuriya and company burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s, the first 15 overs in a one-day game were played to a minimal plan. Batsmen blocked the ball or took leisurely singles. It was the later batsmen who whacked the ball. Sri Lanka stood this approach on its head, plundering runs in the first 15 overs, when the fielders were in the 30-yard circle. They won the 1996 World Cup because of their stunning innovation.
But Kesavan goes a step further. He calls Jayasuriya “the most significant batsman in contemporary cricket, more important than Tendulkar, Lara, Waugh or De Silva”. That’s an astonishing statement to make. I would disagree with it. Kesavan says that if the old cricket coaching books were holy writs, then Jayasuriya is a heretic. He stands at the crease with his feet wide apart, he rarely comes in line with the ball, he hits the ball with an angled bat… he breaks a lot of rules of batsmanship.
My scepticism is not to belittle Jayasuriya’s innovations. It’s just that the Sri Lankan has pulled off his conjuror’s tricks on featherbed wickets.
These past 10 years have been a golden age for batsmen, partly because pitches have been rolled to flat impotence. The context is important. I doubt Jayasuriya’s game is equally effective on difficult pitches.
But this is just the sort of path Kesavan leads you down. He makes you think extra hard about the game and its subtleties—whether you agree with his every assertion or not.